Gary Lee Boas grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and from an early age spent much time daydreaming about TV and movie stars. As a devoted fan, Boas began photographing famous people with his Brownie camera at age 14. Never considering himself an artist, or even a photographer early on, Boas’ obsession grew, uninterrupted, for 35 years, into what has become a massive archive of over 80,000 photographs, autographs and personal letters from movie stars and famous people.
Since the release of his book STARSTRUCK: PHOTOGRAPHS FROM A FAN (Dilettante Press, 2000), Boas has become internationally recognized for the snapshots he took of famous people in the 60s and 70s as an unknown fan. His images have been exhibited in numerous galleries and museums throughout the U.S. and Europe.
Today, Boas continues to photograph celebrities, as well as documenting the many other interesting characters in his life. He spends time between residences in Lancaster, Los Angeles, New York and Paris.
In a day and age where photographing celebrities is a multi-million dollar business, seeing the photographs of Gary Lee Boas only complicates this already murky water. On view at Country Club Projects in Cincinnati, Boas’ exhibition Sentimental Journey shows a series of beautifully nostalgic celebrity images referencing a very familiar place and time, while questioning the roll of the celebrity image, the fan and the photographer. Showing personal fan photographs that were taken in the 60′s and 70′s of highly publicized celebrities before the age of paparazzi, Boas’ images instantly give you vision into our current world of hyper celebrity combined with capitalist gain. Through the lens of memory and nostalgia, these photographs give you a glimpse into the life of a fan and our culture’s obsession with fame, fortune, and celebrity, yet somehow also provide the viewer with the odd relationship between artist and audience. Boas constructs a system in which one can observe celebrity without inherent criticism, where obsession is beautiful and where our culture is worth questioning and celebrating.
Obsessives, of course, are by nature cosmographers. Fans paper the walls of their rooms with their chosen icons, as if mapping out the boundaries of their particular cosmos (and blotting out the one the rest of us live in). Not pictures in a conventional sense, their photos function more as objects and markers. For someone like Boas, the documentary aspect of photography is clearly secondary to its fetishistic value: his pictures essentially function as trophies, providing evidence of his first person encounters with those unreal and forever faraway beings we call ‘stars’.
Boas, however, maintains that as a teenager he began using his camera mainly in order to ‘connect’ with the famous. In several anecdotes included in Starstruck, he describes his celebrity relationships - how he ‘connected’ with Julie Christie at a 1972 Democratic rally, and how, after ‘connecting’ with Richard M. Nixon on numerous occasions, he was eventually invited to the former President’s funeral, to sit amongst an audience, as he ecstatically notes, that included five living US Presidents and four Secretaries of State. ‘To sit at the funeral as a guest was just a situation that was unbelievable to me, like frozen time,’ he writes.
He could be describing his own photographs. For all their amateurish banality, they are curiously elusive, at once utterly matter-of-fact and quietly fantastical. But then every fan’s devotional enterprise is based on a fantastical premise: the otherworldliness of the star, and our corollary desire to touch the untouchable, to become intimate with the inaccessible. The fan only wants to connect with a fantasy - the fantasy of fame - which, precisely because it is a dream, is a hundred times more powerful than the pull of flesh and blood.
In the end, for all his stated desire to make personal contact with the famous, Boas’ pictures don’t draw us closer to specific celebrities, but to the obsessiveness and unreality that underlies the entire photographic enterprise. Long ago, Walter Benjamin observed that the great appeal of photographs was not simply that they could depict the world, but that they responded to a perverse need to bring all things within our grasp, to have the world at our fingertips. But the fan’s incantory compulsion to photographically record his objects of veneration is also about keeping physical existence at a distance, by constantly displacing it into the realm of reproduction. This endeavour is potentially an endless one, and perhaps also a quest for endlessness, inasmuch as the celebrity horizon is virtually limitless. Maybe that’s why Boas’ shabby snapshots of glamorous people end up seeming not just pathetic, but weirdly sublime.
Gary Boas does not consider himself an artist, although he might be a kind of outsider artist. He calls what he does a hobby. For the last 35 years, Mr. Boas, who lives in the house where he grew up in Lancaster, Pa., has dedicated his life to the pursuit of celebrities.
By mail and in person he has sought out (and often befriended) famous people of all sorts and amassed a huge collection of autographed books, playbills, publicity photos and his own photographs. Subjects range from Muhammad Ali to Henry Kissinger, Marilyn Chambers to Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo to Frank Zappa.
This show of more than 1,000 items, drawn from the first 15 years of his career and including more than 600 of Mr. Boas's own Instamatic snapshots, represents just five percent of the total.
What is remarkable is the apparent innocence. Mr. Boas is methodical and incredibly persistent, but in this blessedly unslick presentation, you don't sense the calculated irony of a Warhol or the commercial opportunism of a memorabilia dealer. There is, rather, a bottomless, wide-eyed susceptibility to the allure of fame.
The show is compulsively absorbing to scan; Mr. Boas's amateurish snapshots are especially compelling, capturing as they do so many familiar faces when they were younger. But despite the number of items included, the editing and neat organization cause the show to feel underpopulated and thereby understate the intensity of Mr. Boas's passion. For another take, read ''Starstruck,'' the new book of his photographs published by Dilettante Press ($27.95). It includes personal accounts of celebrity stalking, including the strange and touching story of his friendship with the post-Watergate Richard Nixon.